The four studio albums recorded under the Memphis-born trumpeter Booker Little’s name between 1958 and 1961 were issued by four different labels. It’s always been my feeling that if he had signed a contract with Blue Note Records early in his career, his reputation today would more than match that of Lee Morgan, Freddie Hubbard or Donald Byrd. But they did and he didn’t, and after his untimely death from uraemia, a kidney disease, at the age of 23, the piecemeal nature of his recorded output somehow prevented him from acquiring the stature he deserved.
For many years those four albums were hard to find and expensive to acquire. You might have gone without a few meals to buy one. Now, thanks to European copyright laws, all four are available in a single 2CD package for which I paid £12 the other day. Those copyright laws are problematic in some respects, but when they make it possible for independent companies to reissue music like this, in which the corporate successors to the original labels have seldom shown any constructive interest, it’s very hard to argue against them, so I won’t.
The original albums in question were called Booker Little 4 & Max Roach (United Artists, recorded 1958), Booker Little (Time, 1960), Out Front (Candid, 1961), and Booker Little and Friend (Bethlehem, 1961). The package in which they are assembled, titled Complete Recordings: Master Takes and issued on the American Jazz Classics label, has been put together with evident care, reproducing the original sleeves and notes, with full recording details and extra pictures.
The first of them reminds us that Little came to prominence as a member of the Max Roach Quintet, whom he joined just after his 20th birthday, following studies at the Chicago Conservatory. He made several albums with that band, and his qualities as a soloist were obvious from the start: his clean articulation, bright, burnished tone, rhythmic agility and harmonic acuity made him the obvious successor to Clifford Brown. And at a time when skilled hard-bop trumpeters were not exactly thin on the ground, his playing was immediately identifiable.
The Time album is by a quartet, with Wynton Kelly or Tommy Flanagan on piano, Scott LaFaro on bass and Roy Haynes on drums, and it still sounds pristine. But the remaining albums are the real jewels, since they place his improvisations in the context of a developing compositional gift. They feature sextets, both including the trombonist Julian Priester and the pianist Don Friedman, with Out Front also including Eric Dolphy and Max Roach while Booker Little and Friend (a coy reference to his trumpet) features George Coleman and another great drummer, Pete LaRoca. Little’s 14 tunes on these albums are distinguished by a gift for lyricism that was not always to be found in the composers of the post-bop era; perhaps the nearest equivalent would be the great Benny Golson, who also achieved a song-like quality in his themes for hard-driving horns-and-rhythm combos. Little, though, was a more sophisticated thinker than Golson. In pieces as breathtakingly gorgeous and structurally fascinating as “Forward Flight”, “Strength and Sanity” and “Moods in Free Time”, written in his very early twenties, there are unmissable signs of boundless potential.
His partnership with Dolphy would no doubt have borne further fruit. They were ideal partners, utterly dissimilar in instrumental style but clearly on the same musical and intellectual wavelength, as can be heard on Dolphy’s Far Cry, recorded for Prestige in December 1960, and in the three volumes of live recordings by their quintet, taped in July 1961, just three months before his death, and released as Eric Dolphy at the Five Spot (now also available in a complete edition, from Essential Jazz Classics).
Among the last things he played on, as a sideman, were John Coltrane’s Africa/Brass and Max Roach’s Percussion: Bitter Sweet. Wherever jazz was heading in that turbulent and exhilarating era, he was going to be part of it. We’ll never know what he might have achieved in the years that a fatal illness denied him, but the four albums under his own name — brimming with the amazing clarity of his playing and a talent for exploiting the resources of a small group — are evidence of a remarkable artist at work. It’s a legacy that all jazz fans should know about.
* The uncredited photograph of Booker Little (left) and Max Roach is taken from the booklet accompanying the American Jazz Classics package.